It’s been a long, sometimes tough road for Thor. Thought to be a character that even the most savvy filmmaker might have a tough time bringing to the screen without either of them looking ridiculous, Thor made his cinematic debut in 2010 with the still-formative Marvel Studios taking a fairly gutsy gamble: rather than portray the character and his fellow denizens of Asgard as actual Norse deities, the movie positioned them as interdimensional beings who were the basis of Earth’s ancient northern European legends. Director Kenneth Branagh and his strong cast (with relative unknowns Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston holding their own against Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore and Rene Russo) played it all straight and pulled it off, even if the movie’s uneasy mix of Shakespearean family conflict and fish-out-of-water comedy never quite gelled.
2013’s Thor: The Dark World went darker, but was hampered by perhaps the single worst villain in the Marvel film canon (poor Malekith, nothing personal buddy) and the increasingly obvious lack of any chemistry between Hemsworth and erstwhile love interest Natalie Portman. But in both his solo movies and his two turns in the Avengers series, Hemsworth himself seemed most at ease and most charming when being funny — and somebody in the Marvel brain trust must have noticed.
That brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, the first standalone Thor adventure in four years and the first time we’ve seen the God of Thunder in a full-length movie since Avengers: Age of Ultron way back in 2015. With eccentric and genuinely funny director Taika Waititi getting the gig (after the more staid Branagh and Alan Taylor on the first two entries) and the movie going full-bore with both the comedy and the weirder aspects of the vast Marvel Universe, the studio has produced the most tonally coherent and entertaining Thor movie to date.
The movie doubles down on Thor’s dirty little secret: he really is just a big, kind of dumb, musclebound surfer dude who cruises the universe on a Bifrost instead of the ocean on a board, and he’s far likelier to hit first and ask questions later than the intellectually superior Tony Stark or the forever morally conflicted Steve Rogers. But he’s so innocent in his own blockheaded way, and ultimately so open to learning from his mistakes and embracing his weaknesses that you can’t help but like the big galoot even if he does screw up for most of the first half of this picture.
As Thor: Ragnarok opens, Thor has been wandering the cosmos for two years, looking for the other Infinity Stones and solving little problems as he goes. When we catch up with him, he’s the prisoner of the dreaded Surtur, the giant fire demon intent on bringing about Ragnarok, i.e. the destruction of Asgard. Thor ends up escaping his clutches and returning home, only to realize that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is missing and his adopted brother Loki (Hiddleston) is impersonating their dad and running Asgard on his own (this sequence features one of the funniest Marvel cameos to date).
With Loki in tow, Thor heads out on a brief sojourn to Earth in search of Odin, where events conspire to unleash the formerly imprisoned Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who hijacks the Bifrost and makes her way to Asgard with an agenda of her own. Thor, meanwhile, ends up on the galactic garbage dump planet known as Sakaar. There, a scavenger with her own connection to Asgard (Tessa Thompson) makes him a prisoner of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who stages brutal gladiatorial matches for the entertainment of his minions. It’s in this arena that Thor must face the Grandmaster’s undefeated champion: the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has also been missing for two years and no longer seems to recognize his fellow Avenger.
All this happens at a relatively quick pace, with Waititi keeping the story moving but also managing to give most of the jokes some breathing room. Perhaps his best sustained stretch of the film is Thor’s arrival and indoctrination on Sakaar, where his journey into the Grandmaster’s lair plays out like some weird amusement park ride. The build-up to the latter only reveals him to be a pompous, dictatorial man-child (remind you of anyone?) who Goldblum chomps into with all 32 teeth. Sakaar’s Kirby-esque angular architecture and its sky full of black holes (the biggest of which is named “The Devil’s Anus”) constantly dumping space detritus outside the city limits make up some of the MCU’s most out-there imagery yet (not to mention featuring amusing side characters, including Waititi himself in motion capture mode as the rock creature Korg).
Hemsworth is the loosest we’ve seen him yet as the God of Thunder, the character’s own ego and self-interest tripping him up in hilarious fashion just as much as the forces arrayed against him, while Hiddleston’s welcome return as the still complex Loki reminds us why he remains the best villain the MCU has produced. But he gets a serious run for his money this time out from Blanchett’s Hela, a magnificent creation whose own wounded pride and need for attention — along with her anger over being all but erased from Asgard’s secret history — drive her ruthless plan to seek vengeance against Odin and his sons. Blanchett is somewhat underused, but she holds the screen every time she’s on.
In fact. Thor: Ragnarok gets its female characters right this time in a way that the previous Thor movies never did (although we do miss Jaimie Alexander’s terrific Lady Sif, who’s curiously absent here). Instead of Portman’s colorless Jane Foster and Kat Dennings’ irritating Darcy Lewis, we get the grand Hela and Tessa Thompson’s engrossing Valkyrie, another victim of Asgard’s tainted history who has retreated into isolation and alcohol to forget her tragic past. Valkyrie (whose real name, we presume, is Brunnhilda, although it’s never uttered in the film) is nevertheless the smartest and most capable person in the room at any time, and when her inherent nobility emerges she’s as badass a fighter as there can be.
Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is his most neurotic take on the character yet, while the Hulk’s ability to speak adds even more to the green giant’s personality while pushing him closer to the comics. Thor: Ragnarok on the whole is both the funniest and the most comic-booky of the Marvel movies so far, perhaps even more so than the two Guardians of the Galaxy films. The characters in those movies are all seriously damaged in one way or another, often by parents or parental figures; Thor and his friends have their flaws but are not dealing with deep psychological trauma like a Nebula or Rocket.
If there can be anything negative to say about Thor: Ragnarok, it might be that it’s a bit too light: the stakes, while urgent, never feel quite as earthshaking as advertised, and no one seems especially affected by what should be considered significant events in the MCU. Strangely, several characters from the previous films appear here almost as an afterthought, or even a contractual obligation.
That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself watching Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi has made an exceedingly entertaining, fast-moving and funny little space opera, with lots of eye-popping visuals and a rockin’ dynamic score to boot, and if in the end it all feels a little bit weightless, don’t worry: we’re just a few months away from the real game changer in Avengers: Infinity War. Have some fun while you can (and, of course, make sure you stay all the way to the very end).
Thor: Ragnarok is out in theaters November 3.